Realism was a general movement in 19th-century theatre that developed a set of dramatic and theatrical conventions with the aim of bringing a greater fidelity of real life to texts and performances. It shared many stylistic choices with naturalism, including a focus on everyday (middle-class) drama, colloquial speech, and mundane settings. Realism and naturalism diverge chiefly on the degree of choice that characters have: while naturalism believes in the overall strength of external forces over internal decisions, realism asserts the power of the individual to choose (see A Doll's House).
Russia's first professional playwright, Aleksey Pisemsky, and Leo Tolstoy (The Power of Darkness (1886)), began a tradition of psychological realism in Russia which culminated with the establishment of the Moscow Art Theatre by Constantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.  Their ground-breaking productions of the plays of Anton Chekhov in turn influenced Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Bulgakov. Stanislavski went on to develop his 'system', a form of actor training that is particularly suited to psychological realism. 9th-century realism is closely connected to the development of modern drama, which, as Martin Harrison explains, 'is usually said to have begun in the early 1870s' with the 'middle-period' work of the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen's realistic drama in prose has been 'enormously influential. ' In opera, verismo refers to a post-Romantic Italian tradition that sought incorporate the naturalism of Emile Zola and Henrik Ibsen. It included realistic – sometimes sordid or violent – depictions of contemporary everyday life, especially the life of the lower classes.
A New Form of Realism: George Bernard Shaw A New Form of Realism: George Bernard Shaw Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856. He died in 1950. Although Shaw still has his roots in Victorian England, his plays point far ahead into the 20th century. Besides several novels, his work comprises a great number of political and critical essays and about 60 plays. Mrs Warren’s Profession (1902; written in the nineties), Major Barbara (1905), Pygmalion (1913) belong to his most important early plays. St Joan (1923) is from his middle period as a writer.
Although Shaw continued turning out plays through the thirties and forties, his later work is considered to be of lesser importance. Shaw writes in conscious reaction and protest against the theatre of his time, which he calls romantic and ‘idealistic’ and which he rejects because, in his eyes, it is false, hypocritical and escapist in character. In his opinion, it contributes little to social change but confirms the unjust social conditions as they present themselves towards the end of the 19th century.
Instead of a theatre of containment, Shaw prefers a theatre which is critical towards society, tackles social problems and is ‘realistic’ in so far as it discovers another kind of reality behind the treacherous surface and mask of social conventions and norms. Shaw’s plays are influenced by the socialist Fabian Society, which was founded in 1883 and which counted Shaw among its most popular members. In contrast to Karl Marx, the Fabians rejected the idea of social revolution which plays such a decisive role in Marxist thought. Instead, they postulated a gradual reformation of society.
Also, the Marxist assumption of a paradisiacal final state of society did not find their approval. Their socialism is pragmatic in character and focuses on the solution of contemporary social problems. For example, the Fabians demanded an equal income for all members of society, for, in their eyes, one of the greatest evils of contemporary society was an unjust distribution of wealth. When Shaw in Mrs Warren’s Profession (which may be understood as a radicalized sort of problem play) concentrates on the theme of prostitution, he takes up a literary tradition of the Victorian age.
A woman with a past may be found, for example, in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, or in Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray, a play to which Shaw refers explicitly. But while Pinero is sharply condemning the immorality of his female protagonist, Shaw does away with traditional moral interpretations and concentrates on the social implications of prostitution. To the convinced socialist Shaw, prostitution is no longer a sign of moral corruption but a social evil which is caused by poverty and material need.
This means that prostitution for him is a symptom of the exploitation of people in a capitalist society, and not the individual but society itself is to be held guilty. To quote Mrs Warren: “If people arrange the world that way for women, there is no good pretending it’s arranged the other way. No: I never was a bit ashamed really. I consider I had a right to be proud of how we managed everything so respectably, and never had a word against us, and how the girls were so well taken care of. Some of them did very well: one of them married an ambassador. Her attitude, therefore, is clearly differing from the hypocritical pseudo-morality which, according to Shaw, characterizes the theatre of his time. For Shaw, socialism is important because it is a necessary precondition for the formation of what he calls ‘the superman’. This is where the more speculative and not so easily understandable part of Shaw’s ‘Weltanschauung’ begins. At the centre of it is the concept of life force which, according to Shaw, is the driving principle, the propelling force behind what we call reality.
Schopenhauer’s concept of the ‘will’, Nietzsche’s ‘will for power’ and Bergson’s elan vital have contributed to Shaw’s ‘life force’. It forms the corner stone of an evolutionary form of reasoning which is more and more determining Shaw’s world picture and is replacing the initially dominating socialist ideas. Whereas for Charles Darwin evolution consists in the fact that all life on earth is continually adapting to its material living conditions, Shaw opines that evolution is an achievement of the living principle itself.
The crown and apex of the history of evolution is Man who, in Shaw’s eyes, is predominantly a spiritual being. According to Shaw, the noblest task of mankind is to serve this life force and contribute actively to evolution. This means that evolution has not yet reached its final goal. Mankind has to purify and perfect himself/herself continually, has to overcome his/her shortcomings and boundaries in order to become what Shaw calls superman, a concept based on Nietzsche’sUbermensch. In St Joan, one of Shaw’s most popular and successful plays, the concept of ‘life force’ may be recognized in the female protagonist.
Together with characters such as Alfred Higgins from Pygmalion and Andrew Undershaft from Major Barbara, St Joan, who is far ahead of her time and is therefore able to actively further the process of creative evolution, may be considered to be a personification of Shaw’s idea of the superman, or in this case, superwoman. The conflict between Joan, whose superhuman position implies an abdication of traditional female identity, of love and of marriage, and her environment seems unavoidable. Loneliness and isolation are the price which she has to pay for her superiority.
Joan’s last words: “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long? ” illustrate Shaw’s artistic intentions. Shaw does not attempt to draw an individual historical character or an individual historical event; Shaw’s supermen, superwomen or saints represent exceptional individuals who, because of their superhuman qualities, are far ahead of their time and get necessarily into conflict with the established conservative forces of society which condemn everything new and try to preserve the status quo.
These conflicts in Shaw’s plays may be understood as representations of the dramatist Shaw himself in his fight against the aesthetic and moral norms of his own time. St Joan, then, implicitly tells us something about the function of art with regard to society: it has to take a critical stance, has to fight obsolete thought patterns, petrified value systems and hypocritical moral norms and conventions, and has to further new modes of thinking which in the present already anticipate the future, thus advancing both individual and society at one and the same time.
In spite of his socialist convictions, Shaw’s philosophy of life is characterized by a certain elitism. For Shaw, the life force principle is represented predominantly by prophets, artists and ingenious individuals. What they have in common is the fact that, because of their intuition and their superior mental qualities, they give expression to this life force in various ways.
Shaw’s definition of ‘genius’ emphasizes this point: “A genius is a person who seeing farther and probing deeper than other people has a different set of ethical values from theirs and has energy enough to give effect to this extra vision and evaluation in whatever manner best suits his or her specific talents”. It goes without saying that this definition of ‘genius’ creates its own kind of problems, for it destroys a balanced subject/object relationship, separates the subject from the object and deprives one of the opportunity to measure the subjective claims of the genius against an objective reality.